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Ford   Part 2: 1915-1925

By John Bentley

Revised by Jeremy Wilson

The years 1915 to 1925 saw the Ford empire grow to a fabulous enterprise outdoing all the others.

Much of the great Henry Ford’s economic philosophy, and through it the key to his unparalleled success, was contained in a few paragraphs which appeared in the “Ford Times” of January 1916. Titled “How is the Ford different?” this piece went on to say: “Consider what makes the Ford so tractable a servant, what gives that sense of intimacy with her owner. Details, details alone can do that. Details created by the genius who designed the car, the genius who strove to simplify that which was complicated, whose ambition was to place in the hands of an ever-widening public a car they could buy at a low cost, understand without effort and control with ease ...”

The decade 1915 to 1925 saw the unique and fabulous Ford empire acquire a stature never before achieved by a privately owned enterprise with no public shareholders; witnessed the highest production peak in the company’s entire history; marked the consummation of the greatest public relations stunt ever conceived, and also of Henry Ford’s one and only monumental blunder.

In July 1914, Ford had announced that a $50 refund would be made to every purchaser of a Model T, provided more than 300,000 cars were sold in the coming 12 months. Actually, 326,933 cars were delivered, and in August 1915, the company began mailing refund checks to customers which totaled more than $15,500,000! Ford was then working on a fairly close margin of profit; he could afford this dividend, the good will effect of which was simply staggering. Twice this sum spent on a nation-wide advertising campaign would not have been half so effective in making the public Ford-conscious.

At the opposite end of the scale was Henry Ford’s Peace Ship--a rather ludi­crous venture which, although it turned out to be good advertising, held him up be­fore millions as an impractical dreamer. It was Ford’s belief that if the British and French on the one side and the Kaiser’s men on the other, could be induced to attend a round-table conference, they would see the folly of their ways and quit feuding. Ac­cordingly, Ford chartered the SS Oskar of the Scandinavian-American Line, invited all who professed pacifist intentions to a free cruise, and sailed on December 4, 1915. Outstanding pacifist aboard was Jane Addams, while William Jennings Bryan came to see them off and was ceremoniously handed a cage of squirrels by an amused onlooker. Thomas Edison also was present to wish his lifelong friend success; but this little jaunt, doomed to failure before it started and cold-shouldered by President Wilson, cost Ford a trifling $100,000 before it petered out.

That year, however, was notable for an­other, more fruitful, company event, when Edsel Ford was elected Secretary of his father’s immense enterprises.

In September 1916, the distinctive Model T brass radiator was discarded as a war economy measure after only 800 cars had been built, and was replaced by a painted shell that retained the same outline until the fifteen millionth and last Model T rolled off the line, 11 years later. On October 25, the Henry Ford Trade School was opened to give the underprivileged a chance to learn automobile design, toolwork and other vocational skills at no cost. In fact, students were paid to learn, and many of the apprentices who graduated found posts with other automobile companies.

The first Ford Truck, priced at $600, was offered to the public on January 11, 1917, a year notable for the company’s entry into the industrial group producing World War I equipment. Having completed the first 12-cylinder Liberty airplane engine, Ford went on to deliver 3,950 of these units be­fore the Armistice.

At the same time, Henry Ford and Son, a Dearborn subsidiary of the Ford Com­pany, began mass-producing tractors that bore the trade name Fordson. Between October 8, 1917, and late 1924, over 400,000 of these tractors were manufactured.

Throughout this period, Ford clung to one basic design--one set of specifications only--that of the trusty old Model T which year after year returned to the market with only minor technical and styling changes. This consisted of the four-cylinder, 20 hp L-head engine coupled (through a multiple disc clutch running in oil) to a simple two-speed planetary transmission. The Ford type of clutch, by the way, was being used in sports cars many years later be­cause of its sweet, positive action. The transverse leaf springs, found dependable since 1907, not only were cheap and simple but could absorb terrific punishment. It was said, for example, that only two cars could survive a long, roadless desert trek-- the Rolls-Royce and the Ford.

That same year, 1917, witnessed another major Ford war contribution--the first of the mass-produced submarine chasers, or Eagle Boats. William S. Knudsen, with Ford since 1912, applied auto assembly techniques to the Eagle Boat with such suc­cess that by July 1918 the Ford Motor Company was building and launching five of these boats a month. In all, 60 were de­livered between that time and August 1919.

Despite heavy war commitments and raw material controls, Ford built and sold 537,454 cars during 1918; next year he in­troduced the self-starter as optional equip­ment on closed models. Big news of the year broke on December 30, when Henry Ford resigned in favor of Edsel, saying: “My time must necessarily be given to other work less thoroughly organized than this...” However, there was the proviso: “I shall be glad to...assist in an advisory capacity when requested.”

It was not in Henry Ford’s temperament to surrender power so easily, and in fact he continued through Edsel to have a major say in directing company policies.

On January 1, 1919, Edsel B. Ford suc­ceeded his father as president, and that same day was inaugurated the $6.00 a day minimum wage, setting a new standard in remuneration for labor. On May 16, Ford offered the self-starter as an optional extra on his open cars, while by July body pro­duction got going in a big way. Improvements to the self-starter and the advent of demountable rims were announced on October 17; and before the year closed, certain transactions made Henry and Edsel Ford sole owners of the Ford empire. That year, 996,658 Model Ts were purchased by a grateful public which was becoming, as never before, wheel-conscious. This stag­gering figure represented over one-third of the automobile industry’s total output.

The Ford Investment Plan came into be­ing January 1, 1920, Ford seeming to favor the first of each year for his announce­ments. Employees could now invest up to one-third of their salaries in the company, receiving certificates which assured them of not less than six per cent interest--far higher than bank rates. This naturally proved a tremendous incentive in securing the cooperation of labor.

The next important Model T modifica­tion was announced October 21, when integral brake drums and wheel hubs re­placed the stamped metal drum and malleable hub, adding further to the car’s robustness.

In 1921, again on January 1, came the news that Ford output was now claiming 55.45 per cent of the industry’s total, but the company suffered a serious loss when William S. Knudsen left to head up the rival Chevrolet plant. However, the five mil­lionth Ford duly rolled off the assembly line on May 28.

Public taste, during 1922, so far swung away from open cars that demand resulted in a 59 per cent production hike of coupes and sedans over 1921. Closed car output for the year was 348,728 units compared with 218,810 during the previous 12 months. An­other peculiar fact was a reversal in pre­ference for coupes over sedans. Whereas in 1921 many more sedans than coupes found buyers, 1922 produced 198,382 coupe customers against 150,346 sedan buyers. Coupe output for the year, incidentally, was equal to that of the three previous years combined.

On February 4, 1922, Ford purchased the Lincoln Motor Company of Detroit for $8,000,000, obviously with an eye to re-entering the luxury field, but at the same time he had to remain alert to the low-price market. Despite price cuts of nearly 50 per cent in 1918, Chevrolet sales were hard on his heels and the danger of com­petition from this source became very real. Some 13 changes and refinements were therefore introduced in the 1922 Model T sedans and coupes, including better up­holstery, window lifters, a new instrument panel and door bumpers designed to elimi­nate rattles and squeaks.

Total production for 1925 was just under two million cars and only a fraction less than for the previous year. Ford, during this decade, achieved industrial feats that certainly lived up to his most versatile hopes and dreams.

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